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The daily tally of new U.S. coronavirus cases passed 50,000 on Wednesday, as more reopening plans across the country were slowed amid fears of spiking infections.
A glimmer of hope emerged on the economic front when unemployment numbers were released by the U.S. Labor Department Thursday morning: 4.8 million jobs were added to the national workforce last month, the second straight monthly gain after losing more than 20 million jobs in April, The New York Times reported. Still, 1.4 million Americans filed jobless claims last week, the 15th straight week that unemployment claims have surpassed 1 million.
Meanwhile, rapidly rising infection counts continued to thwart reopening plans: On Wednesday, California, Michigan and New York City became the latest to rethink parts of their reopening strategies, the newspaper reported. California shut down bars and halted indoor dining at restaurants in much of the state, while New York City decided not to let its restaurants resume indoor service next week, as originally planned.
California, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia all broke previous single-day records for new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, while Louisiana's infection rates continued to rise, the Washington Post reported.
In some states, COVID-19 death counts are also rising: Arizona reported a record number of coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday as intensive care units approached 90 percent capacity, the Post reported.
Things could get even worse.
On Tuesday, the nation's top infectious disease expert warned that daily case counts could soon top 100,000 a day if the spread of COVID-19 isn't slowed.
"I can't make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that, because when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they are doing well, they are vulnerable," Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.
"We've really got to do something about that, and we need to do it quickly," Fauci testified during questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "Clearly, we are not in total control right now."
One new strategy that U.S. health officials plan to adopt is "pooled" coronavirus testing, the Times reported. The decades-old method would vastly increase the number of virus tests performed in the United States.
U.S. health officials plan "pooled" testing strategy
Instead of carefully rationing tests to only those with symptoms, pooled testing would allow frequent surveillance of asymptomatic people, the newspaper reported. Mass identification of coronavirus infections could hasten the reopening of schools, offices and factories.
With pooled testing, nasal or saliva swabs are taken from large groups of people. Setting aside part of each individual's sample, a lab then combines the rest into a batch holding five to 10 samples each. If a pooled sample yields a positive result, the lab would retest the reserved parts of each individual sample that went into the pool, pinpointing the infected person, according to the Times.
"We're in intensive discussions about how we're going to do it," Fauci told the Times. "We hope to get this off the ground as soon as possible."
It's not just new infections that are climbing: COVID-19 hospitalizations are also spiking in seven states, the Post reported, suggesting that more than simply upped testing rates are at work. In Texas, Arizona, Nevada, South Carolina, Montana, Georgia and California, seven-day averages for hospitalizations are up at least 25 percent from last week, the newspaper said.
In California, coronavirus case counts have exploded, now surpassing 239,000 infections, the Times reported.
California was the first state to go into lockdown, but officials who were so proactive in curbing the spread of COVID-19 now have to ask themselves what went wrong.
"To some extent, I think our luck may have run out," Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Times. "This is faster and worse than I expected."
Public health experts have also cautioned that Florida could become the next epicenter for infections while Texas has seen record-breaking case counts and hospitalizations, CNN reported.
The city of Jacksonville, which plans to host the Republican National Convention in August, announced Monday that face masks would be mandatory in any indoor spaces where social distancing isn't possible. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has blamed the state's increase on a "test dump," largely from younger residents getting themselves tested for COVID-19.
Rising cases in South alarm federal health officials
Coronavirus response task coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said last week that rising positive test rates in states across the South, including Texas, Arizona, Florida and Mississippi, were causing significant concern among health officials, and that they had created an "alert system" to track them.
She used Texas as an example where higher positive test rates suggest a kind of spread that could not be explained completely by higher rates of testing. Texas is part of a group of states with positive test rates above 10 percent, a threshold the White House has used to identify areas of particular concern, she explained.
More than 8,000 new cases were reported in Texas on Wednesday, surpassing the previous daily record set on Tuesday, the Times reported.
Health care workers have been brought in from out of state as some hospitals near capacity. Ambulances in Houston have been waiting up to an hour to unload patients at emergency rooms, officials said.
"The cases continue to increase in a manner that we just cannot sustain," said Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director of the Austin-Travis County Health Authority. "Cases are skyrocketing across the state of Texas."
A handful of states have actually brought the virus under control after being slammed in the early stages of the pandemic. Determined to keep case counts low, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have said they will now mandate quarantines for travelers coming from 16 states that are experiencing large spikes in new cases, the Times said.
By Thursday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 2.7 million as the death toll passed 128,000, according to a Times tally.
According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Thursday were: New York with over 398,700; California with nearly 240,000; Texas with almost 175,000, New Jersey with nearly 174,000 and Florida with nearly 160,000.
Vaccines and treatments
There has been some good news in recent weeks, however. Researchers at Oxford University in England announced that dexamethasone, a widely used, low-cost steroid, appears to cut the death rate for ventilated COVID-19 patients by one-third. It also lowered the death rate for patients who require oxygen (but are not yet on a ventilator) by one-fifth, the Times reported.
"Bottom line is, good news," Fauci, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Associated Press. "This is a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have."
But at least three manufacturers of the drug have reported shortages, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, STAT News reported. Two of the manufacturers cited increased demand as a reason for their shortages.
Meanwhile, the search for an effective vaccine continues. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has said that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to the drug company AstraZeneca to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine from Oxford University, in England.
The fourth, and largest, vaccine research agreement funds a clinical trial of the potential vaccine in the United States this summer with about 30,000 volunteers, the Times reported.
The goal? To make at least 300 million doses that could be available as early as October, the HHS said in a statement.
The United States has already agreed to provide up to $483 million to the biotech company Moderna and $500 million to Johnson & Johnson for their vaccine efforts. It is also providing $30 million to a virus vaccine effort led by the French company Sanofi, the Times reported. Moderna said a large clinical trial of its vaccine candidate could begin in July.
Nations grapple with pandemic
Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains challenging.
Even as the pandemic is easing in Europe and some parts of Asia, it is worsening in India. Officials in New Delhi plan to test all of the city's 29 million residents in the next week, as the number of coronavirus cases passed 604,000 on Thursday and pushed many hospitals to their breaking point, the Times reported.
Brazil has also become a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, with over 1.4 million confirmed infections by Thursday, according to the Hopkins tally.
Cases are also spiking wildly in Russia: As of Thursday, that country reported the world's third-highest number of COVID-19 cases, at more than 660,000, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections neared 10.7 million on Thursday, with almost 517,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
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